The largest undeveloped parcel in Chelmsford is a 66-acre area off Oak Hill Road in North Chelmsford. Chelmsford residents with support from the Conservation Commission have proposed a warrant article for town meeting to protect the parcel by placing it under state protection in perpetuity. In opposition to this, selectman Jim Lane has proposed that the Board of Selectmen submit its own article to perform a “study” before anything is done. The purpose of this study would be to determine where housing development can be shoehorned in before the land is protected.
The land is rugged and provides a scenic recreational area as well as wildlife conservation land. The Lowell Sportsmen’s Club abuts the property and supports conservation protection. There’s no question that any development would cost the town substantial additional funds beyond the cost of the initial study, for roads and ongoing services.
Why would the BOS, in the face of continued lobbying by Chelmsford residents for years to protect open space, endorse the town funding of a study that can only benefit a tiny special interest group of real estate lawyers, realtors and developers? Um, because that’s what they always do. Jim Lane, former chairman of the Master Plan Committee, points out that the Master Plan calls for a study of Oak Hill. Who was the Vice Chair of that committee, working closely with Lane to formulate those recommendations? Local real estate lawyer Phil Eliopoulos. We all know where his advice leads.
The Master Plan also calls for the town to aggressively protect open space and preserve the existing character as much as possible. In other words, it’s internally contradictory so it can be quoted to support any position the selectmen want to take. These internal contradictions were brought to the attention of Jim Lane, Phil Eliopoulos and the rest of the Master Plan Committee in a 19-page report from Better Not Bigger prior to the completion of the Master Plan. Jim Lane even publicly stated at the final public hearing of the Master Plan Committee that the committee wanted to emphasize the mission statements regarding protection of open space and preservation of the town’s existing character in the face of pressures to develop and urbanize, and would place such statements prominently at the beginning of the report where they had been for the previous decade. However, the committee made no such changes to the Master Plan before submitting it for rubber stamping by the BOS and the Planning Board.
Lane has stated he doesn’t feel the land should be protected unless it can’t be built upon, and the town should fund a study using taxpayer funds to determine where and how to build on it. He is joined in this endeavor by Paul Haverty, a lawyer who advocates for 40B and 40R developers before various towns. Despite his obvious conflicts of interest, Haverty has been appointed by Paul Cohen to the Affordable Housing Committee, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Master Plan Implementation Committee. In other words, Haverty, a real estate lawyer who advocates for developers, is on all three major committees that control decisions regarding development of town-owned land.
Of course, such appointments are yet more violations of the town’s ethics bylaw by Town Manager Paul Cohen. The callous rubber stamping of such appointments by the BOS leads to the following:
Paul Haverty claims that “Oak Hill might give us the best bang for our buck” to “meet the requirement of 10 percent affordable housing.” Haverty knows that there is no hope of Chelmsford ever meeting the 10 percent threshold set by the state without creating very large urban style projects. Chelmsford is already built out. Like the 40B developers he represents, he holds out the 10 percent threshold as a hammer to justify any 40B development, whether it makes sense for the town as a whole or not. He characterizes the opportunity to “find a buildable corner on the Oak Hill parcel” a “reward” that justifies the spending of public funds on a study to benefit developers. The “reward” of course is not for the people of the town, the “reward” is for the tiny group of developers and real estate lawyers who will benefit from any decision to shoehorn in a development on this largest remaining contiguous natural habitat for wildlife. The fact that developers are his clients apparently does not raise red flags for our selectmen, certainly not for Jim Lane.
“We need to look at what benefits the town holistically,” said Lane in a quote to the press. That’s code for, “What’s good for developers is good for Chelmsford.”
What’s needed, of course, are redevelopment plans for unused buildings in North Chelmsford. What’s needed is regional planning and a focus on providing affordable housing where it’s needed most, not where developers can best make a quick buck at the expense of current taxpayers and of future generations. What’s needed is a coherent plan for the University of Lowell’s West Campus parcel that offers several options for both historical preservation and housing.
The Board of Selectmen has not yet voted on whether to place this warrant on the list for upcoming fall town meeting. The BOS is holding an “information session” on Monday, September 19. If you believe this land should be preserved, you can speak at that session or you can send an e-mail to the members of the BOS:
Roland Van Liew